There is a tendency among Asian Americans to fetishize trophies. As if the only worth that can give you any meaning is a piece of tin shaped like a jug. It seems that it really doesn’t matter what the field is or what it takes to get the trophy. Having this validation is all that matters.
I want to argue that this sentiment is plainly wrong. Specifically, winning spelling bees is an utterly useless accomplishment that actually reinforces the worst stereotypes of Asian Indians. It may even hold us back from true greatness and fulfilment that lies outside of the narrow world of spelling “guetapens” properly.
I came to the United States in the middle of third grade. My English was terrible and I cried the first time when a teacher asked me if I knew what a noun was. My math was just as bad. But there was only one subject in my first year here that I didn’t get Cs or Ds in: Spelling. It was simple memorization, even I could do it. All I had to do was study really hard and remember the combination of vowels and consonants.
It taught me nothing about how language works, how to communicate effectively with other people, or how I can actually influence the world with my thoughts. It was just “i before e and except after c”. The other kids in the class, like this girl who read and lot and wrote really well wasn’t so hung up on spelling. She was concerned with things like emotion and tone rather than the bureaucratic exercise of arranging the alphabet.
“Of course he’s a good speller,” I remember the teacher writing in the comments section of my report card. What did she mean “of course”? Then it made more sense when I read the other comments such as: “needs to understand the concept rather than following the pattern” and “needs to show more creativity”. Basically this fed into the narrative that Indians are good copy cats so they are therefore unable to solve original problems.
Then I started getting pretty good at reading comprehension and for some reason my spelling got worse. I simply stopped caring so obsessively about details because I was more obsessed with the bigger picture. Around this time I also started hating that I used to be a pretty good speller.
The only people who were obsessed with spelling seemed to be people with OCD and other compulsion disorders. It seemed as if they cared more for the rivets and fasteners of language than the actual act of communication. This only reinforced my belief that this “skill” was pedantic.
Around 2007 or so I started flipping through TV and saw that ESPN was actually showing the Scripps Spelling Bee like it was the super bowl. This is a joke right? And then you see these kids who looked like I did in the third grade asking if the judge could use it in a sentence or what part of speech it was. It seemed so sad to see these kids looking so stressed. Of course the camera would occasionally pan to the parents who’re throwing these poor kids to the wolves on national TV.
I was just revolted.
So why do Indians care so much about spelling? Like a lot of things, I think this has to do with the immigrant hustle. The parents probably think that winning these bees would give their kids a better shot at Harvard. Who wouldn’t want their kid to win if they see the winner with the President?
It seems to me that the narrative seems to be that these Indians are good at following orders and doing mechanical things. It is an elevation and fetishizing of technique above all else. And this is a great tragedy. Professor Shankar is exactly right when he calls this a “prestige activity”. (hyperlink: http://www.cnn.com/2015/05/29/us/spelling-bee-south-asians/ )
Perhaps I speak only for myself when I think that we should be promoting the kid that wrote his own music, wrote an amazing video game on his parent’s Dell or volunteered in the a soup kitchen. These are things that I would feel are worthy and worth praising. Being a good little cog that does what he is told seems like serving the masters of the system than being in a position of leadership.
Am I overacting? Let me know in the comments below.